"I Was One Guy in a Bubble"
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"I have no outside advice" in the war on terrorism, President Bush told Bob Woodward in December of 2001. In an interview that Woodward revealed to Nicholas Lemann in last week's issue of the New Yorker, Bush insisted that, "Anybody who says they're an outside adviser of this Administration on this particular matter is not telling the truth. First of all, in the initial phase of the war, I never left the compound. Nor did anybody come in the compound. I was, you talk about one guy in a bubble."
Indeed. By every available indication, George W. Bush's is the most inside-the-bubble presidency in modern American history. It's not just that his campaign operatives exclude all but the true believers from his rallies, or that Bush, by the evidence of his debate performances, has grown utterly unaccustomed to criticism.
With each passing day, we learn that once Bush has decided on a course of action, he will not be swayed by mere intelligence estimates, military appraisals or facts on the ground. We already knew that when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told Congress during the run-up to the war that occupying Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops, he sealed his ticket to an early retirement. We've recently learned that Paul Bremer had told the president we needed more troops to secure postwar Iraq and the safety of our troops already there, and that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had pleaded for more armored vehicles to better shield our soldiers.
But these and other such assessments and pleas ran counter to the idea of the war that Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had lodged in their heads. This would be our lightning war, and after Saddam Hussein was deposed, resistance would cease and U.S. forces could pack up and go home. A report in Tuesday's New York Times documents a Defense Department plan to shrink the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by 50,000 within 90 days of the taking of Baghdad. There were estimates aplenty from the State Department, the CIA and the Army suggesting that we'd need more forces for the occupation than for the war, but they were all blithely ignored.
It wasn't as if the administration couldn't calculate the number of troops it would need to secure Iraq. If troops were required at the same ratio that they were deployed in Kosovo, then 480,000 troops would be needed in Iraq, according to James F. Dobbins, who'd served as the Bush administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and who was a former ambassador at large to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia. If we wanted to deploy troops at the same ratio we had in Bosnia, we would have needed 364,000 soldiers patrolling Iraq.
However, Dobbins told the Times, the administration "preferred to find a model for nation building that was not associated with the previous administration."
But the Clinton administration and its allies did not deploy troops in the former Yugoslavia for the sheer fun of it. They calculated the number of forces required to keep the ethnic and political hatreds that suffused the area from erupting into violence, and assigned forces accordingly.
Every remotely sober assessment of Iraq after Saddam Hussein turned up a picture with disquieting resemblances to Yugoslavia – a melange of separate peoples united only by force, with scant indigenous traditions of democracy and pluralism. But large-scale deployment of forces was nation-building in the mode of Bill Clinton, and thus to be shunned. It was empiricism in the manner of Clinton – or perhaps just empiricism itself was indictment enough – and thus to be shunned.
Generals, though, shun empiricism at their own peril – and their troops'. The Times reports that Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of coalition forces, requested right after the fall of Baghdad that the army's First Cavalry Division be sent to Iraq to bolster our forces there, but that his request was denied. "Rumsfeld just ground Franks down," said Thomas White, then-secretary of the Army.
In the debates, Bush insisted that he'd never turned down a request from his military commanders in Iraq. His denial didn't extend to Rumsfeld, and now we know why.
With the presidential race coming down to its final two weeks, the Bush campaign has all but made a virtue of the bubble in which Bush resides and presides. This presidency is a triumph of the will, of resolve. Facts are for flip-floppers; data, for girlie-men. Kerry commands the facts and it breeds vacillation. The force is with Bush, and that is all he, and the nation, need. Bush has fused anti-empiricism and cultural resentment – and that, should he ride it to victory, will truly be a catastrophic success.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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